People sometimes use heredity to explain their drinking habits, perhaps to excuse certain behaviours or the way they respond to alcohol. 

Parents’ relationship to alcohol is certainly a key factor determining their children’s attitude toward drinking, but is drinking behaviour a matter of nature or nurture? 

This new scientific report from Éduc’alcool contains a few answers to such questions, which remain significant and complex. 

Different physiological effects

One thing is certain: alcohol does not affect everyone the same way, and there are biological reasons why. 

How alcohol interacts with the different organs in our bodies depends on a number of things, such as enzymes, hormones and neurotransmitters, whose functions are dictated by genetic code. That’s why the damage associated with drinking is not the same for everyone. 

We already knew that the frequency with which we drink and the amount of alcohol we tend to consume affects how alcohol is “managed” by our bodies. We now know that genetics also plays a role. 

What about alcohol abuse?

When it comes to alcohol use disorder, or AUD (formerly known as alcoholism), the latest data show that genetics account for about 50% of the risk of developing the problem, while acquired behaviours, particularly associated with a person’s family and social environment, explain the other 50%. 

Because of their genetic makeup, some people are actually be more likely than others to progress quickly from regular, non-problematic drinking to AUD, and to develop AUD at an earlier age. 

It is therefore important to remain vigilant with regard to the risk of developing drinking-related problems, especially when there are family history indicators. 

In particular, some genes can affect the way the brain reacts to alcohol, while others influence the speed at which alcohol is metabolized (transformed) in our bodies. 

Health risks

A number of factors contribute to a person’s sensitivity to the health impacts of alcohol. Studies show that genetics are responsible for about 30% of the risk. 

Alcohol is a risk factor for at least seven types of  cancer. The risk of developing one of these cancers depends on how much a person drinks, and certain genetic predispositions they may have. 

Research has also confirmed that excessive drinking increases the risk of liver disease,  cardiovascular diseaseneurodegenerative disease, and diabetes. 

Should we worry about our genetic history?

It is still too early to predict with any accuracy which person is at greater or lesser risk of developing AUD, or suffering alcohol-related damage to their health because of their individual genetic history. Nonetheless, scientists agree that a number of genes are involved, and current research is trying to shed light on specific mechanisms related to these genes, to help us make better decisions about drinking. 

In any case, it is a good idea to ask yourself about your family’s drinking habits and behaviours, while considering the health of each family member. And of course, you should always monitor your own drinking habits to avoid harmful consequences. 

Whatever your luck in the genetic lottery, it’s a good idea to put the odds on your side and remember that moderation is always in good taste.